Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Happy Holidays Links

Happy Holidays. I hope this finds you happy wherever you may be. Here’s to seeing many of you in 2013! some links.


A taxi driver told me about this holiday festival as I was leaving Oaxaca. I wish I would have had the chance to experience it. If you’ve been, please tell me what you saw!

NY Times researchers pick up where Walmart left off. This should not be buried. (Perhaps it should not so directly expose local politicians with photos and names, but the story and practices detailed should be covered.)


Some of my favorite Stuff Expat Aid Workers Like posts: "their passports" and "being based”. I’m definitely guilty of both and I know I’m not the only one. Also, I appreciated the recognition that those of us without UN laisser-passers tend to be drawn to them like shiny objects. (Dissent welcome)

Old and new friends

Facebook. It is becoming less useful for me because of things like this. I wish there were a better way to easily keep up with friends from other places.

I’m excited to move to New York in about a week. Several of the reasons why are located in Queens, the subject of a recent NYT 36 hour writeup. (But seriously NYT? a travel section on a portion of your city?)

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Oaxaca: Monte Albán

Monte Albán was the center of the Zapotec civilization. It sits on a hilltop above the city of Oaxaca and has commanding views of the valley below (that also make the pollution quite visible). It’s incredible to think of people living and worshipping there for approximately 1,200 years, especially because of it’s distance above the valley with its farming and water resources. The main (huge) plaza is arranged north-south (lined with temples to the east and west) and contains buildings and pillars for astronomical and solar observations. The funeral urns from the site are bad ass and a little scary-looking, but since the afterlife for these guys was probably a little scary (as most have been normal life), perhaps it was a good idea.

Limited explanation of the usage and society is available on the placards onsite and in the museum. A guide I spoke to recommended enjoying the spiritual feeling of the site rather than seeking details about the culture since many of its aspects remain unknown (of course, much more is known than I learned during my short stay and descendants of Zapotec cultures and speakers of related languages still reside in Oaxaca state). I was amazed by the scale of the site, which is poorly shown in these photos and the powerful feeling created by it’s alignment with the cardinal directions and the movement of the sun.
A small part of the main plaza

  • Bring plenty of water and sun protection. Guides may be hired at the entrance. 
  • Buses depart from the Zócalo and southern part of the centro on the hour or half-hour. Fully touring the site requires at least two hours. (You can also visit as part of a multi-stop tour may feel quite rushed with this option.) 
  • Many artifacts from the site and surrounding region are on display with explanations (Spanish only) in the Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca, next to Santo Domingo.
  • The ice cream and hat vendors at the entrance had quality wares and good prices.
Temple at the north of the site with Oaxaca city beyond

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Oaxaca week one

I’m currently in Oaxaca studying Spanish and eating my weight in delicious moles, tostadas, tacos, arroz con leche, helados, y mucho más. Last weekend, I took a day trip to a couple of sites in another part of Oaxaca’s central valley. We visited a huge, old cyprus tree in a nearby town, a calcified waterfall called  hierve el agua (the water boils) for the way that it appears to bubble out of the rock (though the water is not hot) and a Zapotec temple site, Mitla.

Mosaic work at Mitla
My life here is relaxed, with low-stress Spanish classes and plenty of time to explore on my own. The family I’m staying with is charming and the school (Amigos del Sol) director has been amazingly friendly and helpful. People on the street seem quite willing to speak to foreigners like me with broken Spanish (and are often keen to try out their English). There’s always something going on in the Zócalo; so far I’ve seen a physical activity fair complete with baton twirlers and overzelaous public Zumba classes, a seven(ish)-year-old singer with a band in spiffy uniforms, public chess, Paraguayan musicians, marimba players, clowns, and craft and food markets. When you get bored of any of these things, the people watching remains top-notch. There are lots of museums and sites of interest around the city, as well as some fabulous places to eat. I’d wholeheartedly recommend the city and the school.

One odd thing about living here is the surprisingly frequent noise from explosions that you hear in any direction at any time of day. My host family assures all is normal and that people are celebrating, and other people have called the explosions fireworks, but I’m a bit confused by the phenomenon. Fireworks at 10 AM? You wouldn’t be able to see them. Explosions sounding off at 11 PM on a Tuesday - why? Perhaps this wouldn’t be the best place for anyone coming directly from Syria or Afghanistan to learn Spanish. (I’m not exaggerating the frequency, I’ve heard 15 or so while writing this paragraph!)

Hierve el agua from above
Hierve el agua from below
And finally, to inspire a little salivating:

Duck tacos at Los Danzantes restaurant

Monday, December 3, 2012

Not recommended

Sometimes we come across books that just aren't our style. These two books are well researched and contain interesting information, but for me they fell flat, one for lack of an overarching argument, the other for its dogmatism. They also reminded me how important engaging writing is for non-fiction works. If you’re fascinated by either topic, these might be interesting books for you. But I think they could have used an additional edit to highlight the good information they offer in a more interesting and approachable or organized manner.

Mark Kulansky’s Salt: A World History includes encyclopedic detail on different cultures’ and eras’ usage of salt, as promised by the title. Unfortunately, it lacks an overall narrative other than the idea that salt is indeed important and regularly veers off for sections that seem only tangentially related to the overall topic. Since the information doesn’t come together to support an overall argument or theme, I found it difficult to remember many of the details presented. I read the first third, then a couple months later made it to halfway though. I enjoyed the chapter on India since it seemed to track a story arc better, then had trouble finding the point of the subsequent chapters. I do plan to finish the book, at some point...perhaps.

The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America, by Timothy Egan, was more engaging than Salt. It tells the story of early conservation efforts, the establishment of the U.S. Forest Service, and battles between different land users in the Rocky Mountain West. The devastating fire season of 1910 challenged the Forest Service’s claim to be able to control wildfires, but also gave the rangers a chance to demonstrate their skills and value to their communities. Egan spent an inordinate amount of time describing the deaths by burning and smoke inhalation of a variety of groups and individuals trapped in the mountains during the main fire blowup. One or two of these descriptions would have sufficed, if combined with a sense of scale of the injured and deceased. Instead, the gruesome descriptions go on for a good portion of the book. Egan’s moral criticism of western workers in boomtowns as being lazy, alcoholic, and lecherous, particularly in comparison with his description of the noble forest rangers seemed heavy-handed and unnecessary. Egan’s research could make the case for the value of the Forest Service without the good vs. evil dynamic he uses to characterize many of the key players and sides in the disputes. He manages a bit more nuance when describing Gifford Pinchot, Teddy Roosevelt’s Forest Service chief, and President Taft, but his often repetitive descriptions of even these figures could have used some editing. Parallels between the era’s social conflicts and differences of opinion regarding the environment and today add interest and strength to the book. 

Friday, November 30, 2012

Links: free market flights, Congo news, and wacky science questions

“Why, after all, should an industry that has ingeniously used free-market principles to squeeze the most revenue out of each middle seat be protected from competing in a real free market?”
asks Clifford Winston in a NY Times op-ed

Humanitarian humor
Wronging Rights highlights the Radi-aid campaign. Africa for Norway. Awesome. (HT Marc, Françoise, and Wronging Rights)

Scarlett Lion with another amazing photo.

M23 rebels recently took the town of Goma in Eastern DRC. These documents offer a little background on the group, who is behind it, and what might happen next. Stay tuned. 

The UN Group of Experts report has finally been released and has some serious criticisms of Rwandan and Ugandan participation. 

Background from Texas in Africa about the Group of Experts report on the M23 rebel movement. 

Congo Siasa has the latest and the background on the situation in Eastern Congo. 

Wacky science

I enjoyed these NPR articles and becoming a fan of Krulwich Wonders:

Attaching cameras to chickens’ heads to see if they see the world more smoothy than humans. Why not, right? I don’t think this is enough to make me feel better about seeing chickens in their boxes bumping down dirt roads on the back of motorbikes. 

A cool project looking at biodiversity and an additional scary view of US agriculture. 

Sunday, November 11, 2012

New York, on paper and in person

So much has been said about New York City, and yet . A few weeks ago, I was lucky to have gotten to see the city while visiting some wonderful friends. Mostly I walked around Manhattan and Brooklyn until I got tired. I took pictures, but not as many as I would have liked. I ate a ton, but there’s always more to be tried in a city of the world. I saw the city in beautiful light, from the Staten Island ferry, the 7 train, the sidewalks of Cobble Hill, and the High Line, but there is so much more I’d like to explore. These are some favorite places I explored thanks to my knowledgable friends.
    Windows along the High Line
  • Spa Castle - a multi-story Korean spa destination a shuttle ride from central Flushing. It was well organized (with a lot of rules, but they definitely make sense), most relaxing, but also brilliantly kitschy. You wear matching uniforms (a t-shirt and giant shorts-pink for girls and blue for boys) in the sauna areas and can order dumplings, a margarita, or steamed corn-on-the cob. A novel experience. 
  • Bluestockings - an self-proclamedly activist book store and organizing space in the Lower East Side. I found inspiration in every direction, buying one book but leaving with enough reading and gift ideas to keep me going for months. 
  • Theater for the New City - we saw a production of A Bicycle Country, which is now over, but the strong production, small theater, and ticket prices made me want to check out some of the other shows in these small cooperative spaces. 
  • Union Square farmer’s market - Many of you have been here or go regularly, but I can’t resist singing the praises of the quality of the available produce. The prices were even impressively good for the location.  
It was a treat to see how my friends live in this city and to imagine the life I could have there. The best part was getting to spend time with people I enjoy each day I was in New York. Thank you guys.

What does this city need?

New York stars in these two novels, both of which I highly recommend.

In Teju Cole’s Open City, a Nigerian-German psychologist explores his thoughts, past, and relationships while walking around the city, meeting with old friends and teachers and commenting on music and art. The result is a meditative but melancholy look at the city and at our thoughts with many  beautiful moments.

My brother and I heard Cole speak as part of a writer’s workshop in Moscow, Idaho in September. I was impressed by his ability to express complex ideas in artfully simple ways. His answers to questions regarding the writing process and about politics were equally poetic. He seemed like the kind of person who could talk about anything over a pot of tea.

My favorite book about New York (and one of my favorite books ever) has been Let the Great World Spin, by Colum McCann. The book tells the interwoven stories of several characters surrounding the 1970s wire walk between the World Trade Center towers. I identified strongly with these characters, as different as they were from each other and from me.

What are your favorite books about New York or your city?

View from the High Line 
Seats on the Staten Island Ferry
A few more city photos here

Monday, November 5, 2012

Big questions for young people (and the rest of us)

Several years ago, a librarian friend who repeatedly schooled me at scrabble mentioned that she preferred young adult fiction to serious, proper fiction. After reading these powerful but accessible books, I see her point. Sometimes the nuance of adult fiction get in the way of asking bigger questions, even if those questions still deserve nuanced answers.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie, tackles poverty, death, and the challenges of growing up with humor and grace (and even illustrations). A friend gave me a copy while I was traveling and I finished it within a few days, but was sad to reach the end. The chapters are small vignettes that could almost stand alone, suggesting the “diary" aspect of the book. The narrator is a cartoonist and every illustration adds depth to the narrative by distilling his ideas about the people around him and situations in which he finds himself into cartoons. This book makes me want to read more about challenges for Native Americans  and life on reservations in the United States, but I doubt that anything I read next will be as charming.

I know I’m several years late to this party, but I finally read the Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins. My initial reaction was that the premise was identical to Battle Royale and therefore thoroughly unoriginal. But, I kept hearing good things about the writing and am interested in food politics, so I bought the first book. I was drawn in by Collins’ ability to weave a fascinating dystopian world, stayed for the action adventure, and ultimately appreciated the self-doubt. The books are page-turners, manipulating and motivating readers as we expect, but they also indict the ideas and modern realities of valuing rich lives over poor ones and the media-driven worlds of politics and entertainment. Poverty and the politics of food are important throughout the trilogy and the characters are affected by the violence that surrounds them and in which they take part. Although the series is over-the-top dramatic and extremely violent, it contains satisfying ambiguity within the main characters themselves and the sides in the battle that envelops them.

I also finally read Ender’s Game and Ender’s Shadow, both by Orson Scott Card. The fundamental good and evil struggle--to save humanity from destruction by hive-minded “buggers”--in these books is lightly, if ever, challenged. However, the drama within a child’s head in Ender’s Game and the descriptions of the battles between students at the school are fascinating. We see the school and experiences of the boys through their thoughts and learn about the surrounding circumstances in selections of conversations between the teachers and administrators in both books. Ender’s Shadow is not a book about a boy like Ender’s Game, since the main character thinks like an adult from age four when we meet him; it adds another dimension to the first story. Despite the fact that you know the outcome of Ender and Bean's games and battles, Card creates tension and develops the parallel story well. I like that I was wondering how much I bought into the Ender’s Game telling of events while I was reading Ender’s Shadow.

Perhaps I’ve been more willing to embrace the good and evil narratives because of the major and rather terrifying election that is looming. Enjoy a brief escape with any of these books; it might just be better than reading a newspaper or turning on the television for the next several days, at least for those of you who are also in the US. 

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

This is Idaho

It’s hard to get to and politically backward, but it’s a great place to call home, is filled with beautiful mountains, and has some pretty awesome people, too.  Here are a couple of photos from around the state.

Twin Lakes in the Sawtooth Mountains
Bruneau River Canyon

Fall in Boise
Few people on this road in Southwest Idaho
Boise winter skyline 

Sawtooths with smoke from a bad summer fire season
Pioneer Mountains from Hyndman Peak, with smoke

Now encouraging 2013 visitors.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Links: the magnificence of luggage tags and more

A few interesting travel-related links that I’ve run across in the past few weeks:

In praise of the humble luggage tag (h/t Elsa).

It’s not just you; flying American Airlines really is miserable, but at least the reason why is interesting.

The eloquent American Airlines lament also mentioned in the last article (thanks Victoria!).

The latest TSA travesty (via James Fallows).

And finally an opinion:  wouldn’t life be much better (and travelers much more calm about delays) if there were free wifi in all airports?  Why aren’t airlines pushing for it?  Thank goodness for the airports that are already there--Boise, Phoenix, Geneva (one hour) and many more that I haven’t yet visited. 

Monday, October 15, 2012

A perfect day in the Alps

Last weekend, a friend took me on a beautiful hike to the Lac Blanc in the Aiguilles Rouges, mountains on the opposite side of the Charmonix valley from the Mont Blanc massif.  We were lucky to have a cool, sunny day with clear views on a weekend day in October.  The setting was splendid and the unforgiving-looking mountains across heightened my respect for the mountaineers who climb them.

Some pretty unforgiving peaks on the opposite side of the valley
View of the Mont Blanc and one of the Lacs des Chéserys
Our hike took about three hours on the way up and about two on the way down and had ladders to help  ascend/descend in some of the steep and rocky stretches.  At the Lac Blanc, which sometimes offers photogenic reflections of the mountains opposite, we had a picnic lunch.  It was too windy to get a reflection from the lake, but the setting was still stunning.

Lac Blanc, the surrounding mountains are beautiful on their own but have some stiff competition
After our hike, we met up with my wonderful Geneva hosts for a drink in Charmonix.  They had traveled up the cable car to the Aiguille du Midi that day and also had stories to share.  It’s hard to imagine a much more perfect day in such a magnificent place (though for several days after my calves argued forcefully for taking an easier route).  Thanks for taking me and I look forward to returning (and hopefully soon)!  

Monday, October 8, 2012

Le désalpe

It’s that time of year... (that is, if you live in northern hemisphere temperate latitudes) 
     ...when the days get shorter,
    ...the leaves start to change color, can eat lots of pumpkin and squash,
    ...and the COWS come down from their mountain pastures!!

Ok, this last one happens mostly in the alps (where I’m currently hiding out), and here it’s celebrated with style.  The cows are decorated with flower headdresses and pine boughs and the goats wear leis of crepe paper flowers.  My Geneva-based friends arranged to check out the désalpe at Charmey (in the Swiss mountains between Montreux and Fribourg) the last weekend of September.  On the main street through town, an announcer called out each troupe as it passed by the keen crowds, highlighting the number of stock, the owners’ history in the region, their pasture and (for all of the groups) how their health and the quality of their pasture helps them produce such flavorful milk.  Some of the groups has been walking for hours before arriving in Charmey and occasionally were running slightly behind schedule.  A steady rain kept the crowds to a minimum but the atmosphere remained festive.  Alpenhorn players performed, as did a brass band and a group of teenagers walking with cacophonous cowbells.

Parading though Charmey

Throughout the town, there were handicraft and kitsch sellers and food stands offering sausages, local ham sandwiches, chalet soup ladled from huge cauldrons, raclette, and plenty of drinks.  The dessert on offer was merangues in heavy cream.  Most importantly, there were also quite a few local cheese vendors.  We picked up some gruyère d’alpage, tomme de chèvre d’alpage, and a fresh goat cheese.  The “alpage” cheeses are made with the milk that the goats and cows produce when they are in the summer highland pastures.  The quality of the grass makes these cheeses particularly perfumed and different tasting (even though it comes from the same animals) as compared to the milk produced when they are in lowland barns during the winter.

Soupe du chalet

After the festivities in Charmey, we stopped in the lovely medieval town of Gruyères.  The town buildings were picturesque and views out over the valley below were cloudy and misty, but usually you can see the surrounding mountains of the Gruyères region.  The désalpe (or démontagnée in France) festivities stretch over a couple of weeks around the beginning of autumn depending on the town.  Other festivals we read about this past weekend included ones dedicated to apple cider, donkeys, and cows sparring for troupe supremacy, so there’s plenty to explore even once the cows have come home.

View from Gruyères castle

Monday, October 1, 2012

Splendid Turkey

When my friend and I started planning a 10-day trip to Turkey, friends gushed about nearly every destination we were considering. Once I arrived, I understood why. People were extremely nice to us (as in over the top, give you anything you ask for nice). One hotel owner arranged for two express mail legs to help me retrieve my laptop power cord and another gave me his SIM card so that I could take a phone call for an interview (or offered to drive me to the town nearby where they were sold). I am deeply grateful to the people who made our trip so memorable, from the waiter who taught us a card game to the friends of my travel companion who took us to lovely local places for dinner and drinks on our last night. So now it's my turn to highly recommend a trip to Turkey.

It was hard to decide where to go within Turkey, as many destinations offer appealing combinations of scenery, history, and culture. We ended up dividing our trip into three days visiting ruins and the beach on the central Agean coast, three days in Cappadocia--an area of fascinating landscapes and early Christian history--and of course, Istanbul.

Library of Celsus, Ephesus
Izmir, Ephesus, and Çeşme - We flew into the lovely, modern airport at Izmir to visit the coast and Ephesus. The ruins are Ephesus are well preserved and definitely worth a visit. They are also the major tourist draw on the Agean coast, so be prepared for tourist and cruise ship throngs. Çeşme might have had this atmosphere too a week earlier, but when we arrived students were going back to school and the town felt perfectly like a resort area in the off season (with still-warm breezes and water). The Çeşme peninsula has several towns and even more beaches. We visited Altinkum (golden) and Ilica beaches and found good food and views everywhere we visited.

Cappadocia “fairy chimney” ancient dwellings
Busy ballooning morning
Cappadocia - Cappadocia has dramatic scenery with funky carved churches, underground cities, and hot air ballooning. In the beautiful tourist hub town of Göreme, many of the “cave” hotels are built into the valley walls and offer scenic views of the town. There are several valley walks around Göreme and the nearby hilltop town of Uçhisar. We visited the Göreme Open Air Museum, which contains cave dwellings and carved churches, and Uçhisar Castle, commanding a splendid view over the surrounding area. We also ventured to one of the underground cities, where thousands of people could defend themselves, living in the warren. It’s difficult to imagine what life must have felt (and smelled) like in these corridors. Taking a balloon ride was a highlight of the visit.

Hagia Sofia interior, Istanbul

Istanbul - The city is even more beautiful and interesting than I imagined. It is also huge and has a sophisticated transportation network and pretty bad traffic. The main tourist sites are concentrated in a small, walkable area of the city. I would recommend seeking out dining options outside of the Sultanahmed tourist center. The basic tourist sites easily fill several days (Hagia Sofia, Blue Mosque, Grand bazaar, Topkapi Palace, Roman cistern, Spice market, Bosphorus cruise, Galata Tower) and are beautiful and fascinating as one might expect, but we were occasionally overwhelmed by the crowds. I was surprised by how safe, clean, and organized the bazaars felt. We visited the hammam at Cağaloğlu, which was nicely restorative, but it seems its renown has undermined the need for service quality. On my last day, I visited Adalar, or the Prince’s Islands. The boat ride out showed me the extent of the city beyond the tourist center and made me want to explore the everyday Istanbul further. 

Practical information:
  • Turkey’s currency is the Turkish lira, but hotel prices are often calculated and charged in euro.
  • Several airlines fly a wide variety of domestic routes. We took three domestic flights with Pegasus and were pleasantly surprised to find online bookings easy, limited hidden costs (visible before you click to purchase; don’t bother to pay to select your seats), and good service on a low-cost carrier. They even let you check 15 kg of luggage. Other domestic carriers include Atlasjet, Onurair, Sun Express, and Turkish Airlines
  • Our bus experiences were very positive, with on-time departures and great prices. 
  • During high season in Istanbul, book lodging in advance. There are many small hotels, but many book up weeks in advance and you won’t want to wander around with your baggage to inquire as the museums and architecture beckon. 
  • Room rates generally include wifi access and breakfast. The quality of the buffet options ranges, but all seem to offer tomatoes, cucumbers, cheese, bread, boiled eggs, and olives. 
Friends recommended Bodrum and Pamukkule to us, but we didn’t have time to make it to either place. If you’ve been to them, please share! 

More photos

Sunday, September 23, 2012

A touch of non-fiction: cognition and construction

I enjoy mixing reading a mix of fiction and non-fiction works as each type helps me enjoy the other more.  I recently finished a pair of non-fiction books on cognition and judgment and the construction of the Panama Canal, respectively.

In Blink, by Malcom Gladwell, the author uses practical examples and provides detail in compelling ways.  To me, Blink read mostly the way pop science should: enough information to get interested in a topic but moves along quickly and offers plenty of references if you want to explore more.  The overall message of the book, however, seemed a little confused to me.  Gladwell starts off by arguing people have amazing abilities to make snap judgements, then points out that experts in many fields base their quick judgements on a wealth of knowledge that they often employ unconsciously.  His example of police officers misjudging a situation highlights the limits of our quick judgements and looks at some of the systemic and environmental factors that affect rapid cognition.  I found myself wishing for more examples that showed more of the categories or nuance of when and why snap decisions are effective (or not).  Overall, the book is a quick and easy read and each of the studies Gladwell employs is interesting in its own right.

While I was in Panama, back in November, a fellow traveler recommended The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal 1870-1914 by David McCullough.  Several days later, in a shared taxi, another traveler gave me a copy, which was coming apart at the spine.  I fixed it up with some packing tape, but had to finish it before I departed Haiti because I didn't have the space in my luggage.  It turned out to be a fascinating read, recounting the political, technical, and social challenges and realities of the canal's construction.  The first book covers the original surveying and the French attempt to build a canal.  The second book is mainly political, following the United States' eventual decision to take over the canal and Panama's assisted independence. The third book looks at the engineering, social, and medical challenges addressed during construction.  The book often focuses on the personal qualities of some of the important players, but also tries to explain what life was like for the different kinds of canal workers and how it evolved in Colón and Panama City during the canal construction.  It's an enjoyable, engaging read despite the length.

Having visited the Miraflores Locks, Gamboa town, and the dense, lush forest nearby increased my interest in this book, but it would be an enjoyable read for anyone curious about any of the questions raised (or answered) by the canal construction.  As a warning, it will probably make you want to visit Panama.  Enjoy!

Miraflores Locks, Panama Canal

Thursday, August 30, 2012


I was born in Alaska; my parents lived there for nearly ten years.  I remember very little if anything at all but had heard stories and names and seen pictures while growing up.  This summer, more than 23 years after we left, I went back with my parents as tourists.  We visited longtime friends of theirs and their old houses and two phenomenally beautiful national parks.  Here's a summary of our trip with a few pictures and travel recommendations.

Anchorage is the big city with more than 40 percent of the state's residents in the metro area. The Chugach Mountains rise directly behind and continue for more than 200 miles down the coast to the east. We stayed with my parents' longtime friends who treated us phenomenally well and took us hiking in Chugach State Park and around Independence Mine.
View along the Alaska Railroad

Next, we headed to Seward via the Alaska Railroad, which also connects Anchorage with Whittier and goes north Fairbanks via Talkeetna and Denali National Park.  Current passenger railroad service is for tourists, slow, scenic, and pretty expensive.

Seward is surrounded by snowy peaks and Resurrection Bay and offers quick access to Exit Glacier and the Harding Icefield trail.  We missed the Exit Glacier part of Kenai Fjords National Park, but got to explore another part by staying at Kenai Fjords Glacier Lodge.  The lodge is on native corporation land and is beautifully built into a wooded area off Aialik Bay, approximately 50 nautical miles from Seward.  Guest cabins and the main lodge building have a view across Pedersen Lagoon to Pedersen Glacier.  From the lodge we canoed and walked to an upper Pedersen Lagoon, filled with melting icebergs from the glacier, and saw black bears and otters along the way.  Another day we kayaked to Aialik Glacier and watched it calve into the bay for hours.  The lodge was comfortable and had great good and we were extremely lucky to have three sunny days in a very weather-prone area.  On the boat rides in and out we saw puffins, sea lions, humpback whales, porpoises and seals.

Rounding Aialik Cape headed back to Seward

Lodge with reflected view of Pedersen Glacier

Sea lions diving along our ride to the lodge
We picked up a rental car on our way back through Anchorage and headed to Fairbanks, Alaska's second largest city and my (parents') former home.  We spent most of our time catching up with my parents' friends who still live there, but also got a chance to visit the University of Alaska, Fairbanks' Museum of the North and Large Animal Research Station (LARS), home to Muskoxen, Caribou, and Reindeer.  Both stops were informative and seemed like some of the more interesting things to do available in Fairbanks.
Bumper sticker at LARS, I got one to take home

Muskox at LARS
Finally, we had three-and-a-half days in and around Denali National Park.  We thought our weather luck had finally run out, but were lucky enough to get some in-and-out views of Denali's North Peak.  We rode into the park on the shuttle buses two days, which was lovely when we could see out the bus windows.  The rides were like school bus safaris, with 40 people looking for wildlife.  The prime wildlife areas seemed to be from Toklat to Eielson, which requires a 6 to 8 hour roundtrip bus ride.  One day we rode all the way to Wonder Lake, but the most spectacular stretch was up to Eielson and nearly 11 hours on a school bus (even with breaks) is a long time.  We walked from Savage River one day and to the Mt. Healy Overlook another day, both of which offered lovely scenery and were accessible by car.  I couldn't believe the scale of the landscapes in the Alaska Range or how the Chugach seemed to go on forever.

Mama grizzly and cubs in Denali NP
Denali (McKinley) North Peak
I'm hoping to visit parts of the Brooks Range and/or Wrangell-St. Elias National Park on a more adventurous future trip. 

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Paris, deliciously or scandalously

In the last several months I've read three books by Americans who have lived, eaten, and adventured in Paris.  They seem to have had a lot more fun than I did while I was there and tell marvelous stories.  

A bakery in my old neighborhood

The protagonist (heroine) of Elaine Dundy's The Dud Avocado, Sally Jay Gorce, is strong, somewhat self-destructive, and hilarious.  Her adventures are far from realistic, though apparently she is based on the author's own larger-than-life time in Paris.  You hope for her to make it though and you feel her lurching from one precarious situation to the next, always off balance and always on the move.  The heroine's thoughts and actions seem all the more remarkable when you consider the book was first published in 1958.  This is a fun read and you don't need to remember too many characters or plot items to enjoy the language and tempo.

Sally Jay Gorce lives very differently in Paris than did Julia Child, whose memoir, My Life in France, (with Alex Prud'homme) also tells her fascinating story of Paris in the 1950s.  I enjoyed meeting Julia, as she introduces herself, but also reading about the drafty windows, good meals with friends, and attitudes in Paris that reminded me of living there.  Her story is one of hard work to accomplish something impressive. (I was grateful of her acknowledgement of the setbacks and discouraging moments.)  I find her inspirational for her choice of a project, for the determination to stick to it for years and for the attitude of enjoyment and appreciation she brought to observing, eating, and writing. 

In The Sweet Life in Paris, David Leibovitz recounts cultural encounters and plenty of eating in Paris.  His stories are interspersed with recipes, few of which I've tried.  His vignettes are entertaining but they aren't so unique if you've read Peter Mayle or David Sedaris' cross-cultural accounts.  I liked Leibovitz for who he is, the rather neurotic chef who makes fun of himself well and eats even better.  I prefer drooling over his blog entries, which introduce readers to restaurants and dessert shops in different cities worldwide.

Skyline from my dear friend's apartment

If you're missing Paris or looking for a cheaper alternative to a plane ticket (or time machine), you might enjoy any of the above.  All of them will make you laugh and may even help you see Parisians or their food a little differently. 

Friday, May 25, 2012

A Familiar Setting

I recently finished reading three books set in Haiti that show different ideas about and experiences of this place.  I enjoyed The Comedians the most of the set (probably because it was the most political) but I also liked the variety of voices in Haiti Noir.

The Comedians, by Graham Greene, is set in Haiti under François Duvalier (Papa Doc), written by the owner of the fictional Hotel Trianon (based on the Ollofson).  It’s a clever but saddening satire of politics in Haiti and elsewhere, but sometimes hit too close to home.  A few bits and pieces I found interesting are included below.

“Your first refugee, Excellency,” Hamit said. “I was half expecting you, Monsieur Philipot.”
“Oh no,” the young man said, “not that. Not yet. I understand when you claim asylum you have to make a promise not to engage in political action.”
“What political action are you proposing to take?” I asked.
“I am melting down some old family silver.”
“I don’t understand,” the ambassador said, “Have one of my cigars, Henri. They are real Havana.”
“My dear and beautiful aunt talks about a silver bullet. But one bullet might go astray. I think we need quite a number of them. Besides we have to deal with three devils not one. Papa Doc, the head of the Tontons Macoute and the colonel of the palace guard.”
“It’s a good thing,” the ambassador said, “that they bought arms and not microphones with American aid.” (p.131)
This excerpt represent my idea of the book; there’s conflation and the sense that political talk is often cheap and has more to do with playing a role than really addressing an issue.  Action, however, involves significant risk and is often best left to others.

“Perhaps the sexual life is the great test. If we can survive it with charity to those we love and affection to those we have betrayed, we needn’t worry so much about the good and the bad in us. But jealousy, distrust, cruelty, revenge, recrimination…then we fail. The wrong is in that failure even if we are the victims and not the executioners. Virtue is no excuse.” (p.139)
I liked this reflection.  It’s spoken by the most sincere character and seems useful for a place and time in which other structures are falling apart.  

“No, I don’t despair, I don’t believe in despair, but our problems won’t be solved by the Marines. I’m not sure I wouldn’t fight for Papa Doc if the Marines came. At least he’s Haitian. No the job has to be done with our own hands. We are an evil slum floating a few miles from Florida, and no American will help us with arms or money or counsel. We learned a few years back what their counsel meant.” (p.232)
This sentiment is repeated in other ways elsewhere in the book.  Living in Haiti, I completely agree that any solutions to Haitian problems will come from Haitians and not from foreigners.

The title of The Rainy Season: Haiti then and now, by Amy Wilentz, promises some insight into or at least reflection on the current political situation.  Instead, it captures a variety of events Willentz lived or observed while she was in Haiti in the 1980s.  I like the way she devotes significant time to ordinary people she meets along the way in addition to those with a role in Haitian history.  For me, the dinner parties or the discussions between journalists that she recounts weren’t nearly as interesting since they remind me of my own limited view of politics and developments here.

Haiti Noir is a short story collection edited by Edwidge Danticat.  Some of the stories seem predictable, others seem overly gruesome, and in still others you see the characters’ care for one another.  It’s fascinating to see what authors with a connection to Haiti imagine or sensationalize about this place to create mysteries.  The publisher (Akashic) had a neat idea of creating these collections set in all different places and although this is the only one I’ve read, I figure the fears they illustrate vary greatly.   

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Welcome, vamos ir a Panamá

For several months now, I’ve been thinking whether by blogging I might be able to add to the fabulous blog content I read and the correspondence I have with my friends.  The most valuable thing I’ve identified is expanding the discussion of books and travel destinations that I have with several good friends.  I know you’re headed to interesting places and reading wonderful works and I think several of you would get along with one another and benefit from the recommendations from a broader group.  I also want to put more time into thinking about what I’ve been reading, especially the books and articles that I recommend and creating some useful travel information for the places I’ve been. 

I know some of my friends have their own blogs and ways of sharing their travels and book recommendations.  I hope some of you will share your wisdom and photos here at some point as well.

For now, I’ll start with a trip from several months ago: Panama

Panama tops the NY Times places to go in 2012 list and it’s awfully nice.  I spent a little over two weeks in several areas of the country with a couple of good friends.

Panama City – Upon my arrival in the capital, I was amazed by the infrastructure and the skyscrapers (only partly because I was coming from Haiti and am coming to worship pothole-free roads and user-friendly public transportation).  A friendly, inexpensive B&B, Dos Palmitos, made me feel instantly at home and offered an amazing breakfast to fuel our day.  Outside of the Casco Viejo and the promenade along the oceanfront, the city is not very walkable, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t try (and march my friends around too).  I didn’t get to try the interesting restaurants that I had read about, but did end up wandering the gigantic malls more than I had intended.  The city is a shopper’s paradise, but the tourist attractions can only keep one busy for a few days.  The public transportation system was navigable to curious outsiders with limited Spanish, which was a welcome surprise.  In addition, locals graciously gave directions and transportation assistance.

Bocas del Toro – An archipelago that’s far from Panama City and San Jose, Costa Rica, and somewhat cut off by mountains. It’s a long drive to get here or a short flight. There are plenty of flights to both capitals. Most of the islands are rather large and forested, though there are nice stretches of beach. High season is the northern hemisphere winter and simultaneously the Bocas (Caribbean side of Panama) rainy season so keep that in mind if you’re planning a trip. Most of the travelers seemed to be backpackers or retirees, but the atmosphere was definitely relaxed amongst travelers in the off season.  Bocas offers beaches (a distance from the main town), surfing, snorkeling and diving, and hiking, as well as fancy resorts that would feel far from anywhere.  We enjoyed a walking tour of a cocoa-growing cooperative on the mainland, learning about how cocoa is grown and processed, complete with samples, but the tour was especially enjoyable because we were the only visitors that day.  Restaurants in Bocas town varied significantly in terms of price and quality, but were generally pricier than we had expected.

Boquete – Sits in a valley below Panama’s tallest point and only volcano, Barú.  The hillsides around are covered in coffee plantations and there are plenty of hiking and rafting opportunities.  We enjoyed a local restaurant in the center of town for a couple great meals and journeyed to the hot springs a 30ish minute drive from town. The springs were wonderfully relaxing and the monkey there is entertaining, but don’t bring sugary drinks or anything you would be heartbroken to lose.  I wished we could have stayed longer here and enjoyed meeting the backpackers who joined trips at a hostel in the center of town and a very good yoga class.

Gamboa – We visited this little Canal Zone expecting to find a small Panamanian town, but since it was constructed for canal workers and off the main road, it felt like a little like an American suburb in the middle of a tropical rainforest. Pipeline road is a popular destination for birders and there are few housing options. Luckily we found a place to stay at the Canopy B&B (part of the pricey, naturalist-catering Canopy Tower set of properties), located in a beautifully restored home.

San Blas Islands – Are a chain of hundreds of small islands in the Caribbean. The drive over the continental divide is one of the windiest, steepest roads I’ve ever been on, (you can also fly to the islands) but the reward is grand.  Food choices seemed limited in the places we stayed and saw and you would probably be best off traveling the islands by sailboat to see more different areas.  The islands are picture perfect, the Kuna Yala people friendly, and the molas (hand stitched panels) enticing.  I loved the feeling of distance from the city and the dominance of the water in the way of life. We heard of fabulous snorkeling and got a good little taste, but not as much as we would have liked.

We did not travel to the Darién, Santa Catalina, or the Archipelago de las Perlas.
Throughout the touristy areas of Panama, the separation between visitors and locals was strong and somewhat disappointing.  However, the Panamanians we did talk to were overwhelmingly friendly and interesting.  Traveling alone with female friends, we felt almost no harassment. 

  • US dollars are used throughout Panama but credit cards were rarely accepted outside the capital.
  • Taxi fares in Panama City are cheap when you know what the price should be.  Bus rides cost $0.25 to $1.25.
  • Spanish was most helpful in Panama City and in the Kuna Yala/San Blas Islands. There were many English speakers in Boquete, Gamboa, and Bocas. 
  • We found that having the Lonely Planet was better than not having it, but practical information was often lacking (more so than most LP guides) and fellow travelers were far more helpful.
  • The rainy seasons on the Pacific and Caribbean sides of the isthmus are opposite.  Check them out as you decide where and when to go.